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What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

The days are getting shorter, temperatures are definitely cooling down, and we all seem to know and feel that winter is just around the corner. When I drive to work in the morning, it’s much, much darker now than it was; driving home in the evening, there’s still some light, but I can see it changing. Recently, we all scrambled to change our clocks so we could “fall back.” We may have gained an extra hour of sleep that night, but it’s a fairly major adjustment for most of us.

Change of Seasons Can Bring Tiredness

The change of seasons with the longer hours of darkness and colder temperatures can bring about feelings of sluggishness, feeling tired more easily, and also increased feelings of depression. Many report feeling this way the first week or so of “falling back” but then adjust. For some, however, those feelings linger. As health care providers, one of the things we want to be aware of for our patients is Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Depression is More Common in Cold, Dark Months

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time each year. For those who experience SAD, it usually starts as the weather cools in the fall, and may actually get worse in the winter. While some people report a seasonal depression when the weather is warm and sunny, it’s not as common. For most, SAD seems to show up in months that are colder and darker. The characteristics of SAD for the colder months can look a lot like other forms of depression.

Symptoms of SAD

  • Significant changes in appetite – carb cravings
  • The need for increased sleep
  • Lack of energy; easily fatigued
  • Lack of ability to concentrate
  • Sluggish movements
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased irritability or overall unhappiness

SAD Can Last Beyond the Season If Not Addressed

The cause for concern here is that SAD, while it is seasonal in nature, can become a longer term depressive disorder if not addressed. If you sense that you are experiencing any of these symptoms above, it would be a good idea to speak with your health care provider. Take some time before your appointment and write down what you are experiencing. Paying attention to your symptoms, writing them down, and talking these symptoms over with your provider can help determine the best course of action to help you feel better.

Treatment Options for SAD

If you are prescribed medicine, talk therapy might also be recommended. Talk therapy along with proper medication can be extremely beneficial when dealing with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issue. And there are also things you can do on your own to help the medicine and therapy work even better for you.

Self Care Options That May Help

  • Listening to music that makes you feel good
  • Movement – simple things like going for a walk at lunch, taking the steps instead of the elevator at work, turning on some music and dancing
  • Keeping a journal
  • Prayer and/or meditation
  • Practicing good sleep habits
  • Taking your medicine as prescribed
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding alcohol (alcohol can make us more depressed)
  • It’s also important to avoid illegal drugs – this is important at all times, not just when we’re depressed

Light Therapy Can Help Some Patients

Another option for some patients is light therapy. Light therapy is a special, bright light that seems to produce the same effect as the sun. There are patients diagnosed with SAD who do very well using one of these lamps. Research indicates that people start to feel an improvement in their SAD within about a month.

One of the most important things about having any type of mental health concern is knowing that there is help available. Please schedule an appointment and talk with your health-care provider if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above. We are here for you!

Original post date: November 2012. Revised: November 2019.

Karen Williams, LIMHP
Karen Williams, LIMHP

Karen Williams, LIMHP is a Mental Health provider at CHI Health.

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